FF 400: Drag and Follow

Submitted by Space Coyote on November 15th, 2011 at 5:11 PM

[ED: Bump so hard. ]

Previous Days

FF 101 - The Fundamentals: Syllabus & Day 1 (Overall), Day 2 (Offense), Day 3 (Defense), Day 4 (Offensive Line), Day 5 (Wide Receivers)... more to come someday

FF 201 - 3-3-5 Defense: Day 1 (Advantage/Disadvantage), Day 2 (Against tight formations)

FF 210 - Screen Package


FF400 - Drag and Follow

So this is what I had intended to do with the series when I started it: breaking down plays/concepts that Michigan runs and why they work, how to defend/attack them, etc.  Today I’m going to break down a pass play that Michigan ran twice for first downs in the first half.  This is a great play that isn’t necessarily innovative anymore, but it is still very prevalent both the college and pro game.  It’s called the drag (jerk) and follow pattern.

What I will be doing today is going over this play and how and why it was successful twice against Illinois.  I will also discuss how defenses scheme against it in order to stop it, plays to counter those defensive adjustments, and why Michigan went away from it when it was successful early.

More info on plays and plays like it can be found herehere, here, and here.


The Play – Drag and Follow

This is a great play because it does two things.  It gives both the QB and WR easy reads and it always makes the defense wrong, essentially putting them out of position.*

Note, I have done a fairly simple defensive alignment that isn't really that technically sound to face the run.  It is an even front with the SS back.  This isn't bad against the pass but against the run it would probably suffer.  There are many different variations of D, and I some what change the D alignment to help prove my point.  It is important to realize that the keys are still there though, I'm just attempting to teach as simply as possible, so the defense isn't always the same.

Notice the label for each receiver and the Zip presnap motion (into the formation) by the Z receiver.  On defense, N is the Nickelback (don't hate me, hate the Lions) subbed in for the SAM.


The Read – Backside LB

The QB will read the backside LB (WLB). 

If the he follows the drag route, it will leave the delayed follow route open in the space that that LB previous occupied.  You see this the first time Michigan ran this play against Illinois. 

The LB attacks downhill at the drag pattern leaving an opening where he previously was. 


If the LB learns from this or is coached to counter this play by staying home, the initial drag route will be open.

Why this works

This works because it is extremely difficult for the defense to be right.  If the defense is in zone, the drag combined with the follow will force the LBs to commit to one of the WR.  Typically the follow will settle down in an opening and will be open, often between where the WLB vacated and the MLB is playing his zone.

If the defense is in man they essentially have two issues.  The first is covering a drag route, one of the most difficult routes for a corner to cover.  It is made more difficult by the fact that the WR running the route starts in short motion towards the formation (often called a “Zip” motion because it is the Z receiver).  This means the defender is essentially on his back shoulder.  The CB must stay on his back shoulder because he doesn’t know for sure if it is actually a drag route, or a crack block, or something else.  Given time, the QB will surely find this man open.

After the drag is over, the follow occurs. Essentially you are asking probably a LB (though maybe a safety or corner) to cover the flat, the middle, and everywhere in between with no help on one man.  This is extremely difficult to do. 

So one of these two WRs will most likely be open regardless of zone or man.

This also works extremely well against blitzing teams.  The drag route is essentially a built in hot route, the only fear is having a very good DB jump in front of the route, but that “bite” by the DB could easily come back to haunt him (more on this later).

This play essentially works against any blitz.  Against a LB blitz, whether from the outside or A-gap blitzes, or from blitzes from the DBs.  If the blitz comes from the LBs, the drag is essentially hitting the void they have left.  If it comes from the trips DB, the follow route stays in long enough to at least chip the blitzing DB, leaving the QB enough time to find the drag or to hit the follow shortly after.  I don’t know for sure with Michigan, but often there will be another “hot route” that is changed for a DB blitz.  If the follow receiver sees a DB blitz it will chip and then release into the flat, essentially to the void that player left open.

So how does the defense stop it?

You see that the first time Michigan runs it against Illinois that Illinois is running zone.  Koger, who is actually the up man, runs multiple defenders out of their zone on essentially a 12 yard hitch (rather than the corner route).   The drag route pulls away the WILL and this leaves a huge void in the defense for the delayed follow to hit after the receiver is done chipping the defender.  Obviously this is not how defenses are drawn up, so step one would be to release receivers running routes into the next zone (easier said than done when given the zone keys) rather than allowing one player to be covered by three guys.

So the first thing Illinois tried to do to counter it was tell their WLB to not double down on the drag route after he followed it the first time.  This isn’t necessarily bad coaching, they are telling him to let him run through the zone onto the next defender (the backside corner) who should be covering that zone in the cover 2 (it will be different for man coverage).  This is difficult for the backside corner though, who is taught to get depth if no one is underneath him.  And considering the drag route comes from the far side of the field it is difficult for him to see it develop and he is often caught following the X receiver.  It is important that the WLB should probably still chip the drag receiver to throw off his timing however.

The problem is that the backside corner was run out of his zone, leaving the drag open.  The LB also didn’t disrupt his route, and Denard Robinson properly went through his reads.

CORRECTION: After actually watching what Illinois tried to do rather than going from memory, they didn't attempt what was described above.  What they tried to do is bring a 5 man pressure with a blitz from the WILL.  They then attempted to play man with 2 DBs and the MIKE.  They are doing an inside out concept in coverage, meaning the MIKE will take the inside man, the CB should take the outside man and the N is matched up with his man.  They screw up there coverage though (pretty clear miscommunication) as the outside corner doesn't know which man he has or the N doesn't.  My guy is the N screwed it up (I think he was responsible for the up man and was supposed to match up on him) and the corner was supposed to take Hemingway coming across.  Either way this is a blown coverage that didn't really cost them as the drag route beat the Mike, who failed to hit and slow his man as he crossed in front of his body.  Therefore, easy pitch and catch.  But this was pretty much going to be that regardless once Denard read the WILL blitz.  Also the backside corner is in man, which is why he gets run off.

But even when everyone does their job, the backside corner keeps his assignment, and the LBs do theirs, it is still extremely difficult to stop as 2 WR are settling down in gaps with the WLB in between having to choose which one to cover rather than leaving both open.  So another thing to do would be to jam the WRs to throw of the timing.  This is also difficult however because the Z receiver (drag receiver) is in motion and off the LOS.  The Y (on the LOS) is running a delay anyway, so jamming him plays into the play calls hands.

You can insist on the backside corner staying in his zone but that leaves a man over the top 1-on-1 with a safety either hitting the weak spot in a cover 2 or running a lethal post, leaving the safety in an awkward spot.

So the next step is to move a S down into a robber position.  That is, let the LB stay in his zone and have a safety crash down on the drag, essentially setting up either a big hit or a pick six, or have the LB follow the drag and set the same thing up for the follow route.  This is the best way to stop this play, but isn’t the best play if the offense catches you cheating up. (Note: Usually it will be the SS that cheats up as it will help him assist in the run game and he also is more likely to be matched up in man coverage with the trips to his side.  He's responsible for help on the bubble the way the defense is aligned).


How does the offense counter this adjustment.

There are other routes that are run on this play.  If the defense moves up a safety, the defense is forced to go cover 1 (or cover 3, but if that is the case either the drag or follow will be open for the same reason as above).  The 2 other routes attack deep, leaving the FS to pick between WR and leaving the other in 1-on-1 coverage.

There are two other play calls that counter defensive adjustments very well out of this same set.  One is a running play the other a pass.

The running play is an outside pitch.  If the defense shows any blitz they have gotten themselves in a very precarious position.  The zip motion WR can crack the playside DE or the first free man on the inside (if not playside DE, then MLB) while the Y (follow receiver) seals off the playside LB or the man inside of him (this depends on if the Y is lined up like a TE, as in next to the Tackle, or if there is a wider split between them).  Most likely the play side G or T can then pull a kick out or seal in the first man with a different color jersey (depending on the defensive front).  Potentially they could have 2 pulling linemen depending on the defensive front, leaving another to get another off-colored jersey.  With blitzes giving the defenders at least poor angles if not taking them out of the play completely, if the offense hits you when you do this it should be a big gain if executed (this is a big if and I will show why later).

The second play is a pass play in which the offense will essentially flood the zones to their side.  This will be done by quickly releasing the Y receiver, rubbing off the X receiver.  He will run his route to about with about 10 yard depth.  The H will still run his corner route, giving them two depth options on that side.  The Z receiver will then double back after getting the defender to bite on the drag.  If the defender is on the Z WRs front side shoulder he is already beat, as the Z double back to the flat, or the short route in the flood.  The Y is the built in hot route for edge pressure that you often see teams get first downs off of on 3rd down.

So why it was successful and is impossible to stop, so why didn’t Michigan keep running it?

Well this falls on the limitations of Michigan’s QB play.  Denard Robinson is short, he hasn’t learned to manipulate the pocket yet.  He can’t successfully contort his passing motion to give himself different arm throwing angles, let alone consistently step into and have solid throwing mechanics with pressure in his face.  He also struggles to throw deep, and even more so when it’s windy.  So combine all that, he will struggle to hit the deep routes that a more typical QB for this offense would throw.  He also struggles to beat the blitz, mostly because he can’t manipulate varying things to give himself passing lanes.  When the defense moves up, he gets pressure and has no passing lanes and thus this play no longer works.  Illinois adjustment and Denard Robinson’s limitations put an end to this play.

When Michigan gets its QB that can do these, I expect a full dose of the drag and follow and flood routes combined with an inside/outside running attack.

But you said you would get back to the execution thing?

So yes, execution, this time not by Robinson, but by Devin Gardner.  This is out of a different formation but it’s the same thought process.  Illinois is tipping their hand and Gardner makes the correct adjustment by calling an audible to the outside pitch.  This play should be a TD, however the execution of the play is poor.  Hemingway misses his block, as does the pulling Center Molk.  The main missed assignment is on the WR Hemingway though sense the play was blown up as soon as he missed his assignment.  These are the things that need to work in order for an offense to work.  This is a counter to what Illinois was doing that should have been successful for Michigan.


Picture Pages

I managed to find one video with one of the plays.  This came later than I remembered it (late in the 2nd quarter) and the formation is a little different, but the concept is the same.

First time at 1:55

Second time at 6:47

Pitch play that should have worked at 9:04


*screen shots and video will be up after the every snap videos are posted and I can grab some images and I have time. 


Space Coyote

November 14th, 2011 at 4:31 PM ^

I'm busy the rest of the day so I won't be able to reply back to comments as often as I'd like.  If others could help that would be great.

The reason I took the time (when I shouldn't have because of time crunches, but that's Michigan football fandom) is because people are getting all over Borges when they don't get it.  They don't get what he's trying to do, they don't get why what he's trying to do works, and they don't get the limitations he is up against.  People want him to "Roll Denard!", well that didn't work well as most people who watched earlier in the season could have told you.  He tried it a couple times to see if Denard was capable in that game to get the edge or make a good pass, he couldn't, and Borges went away from it.  They want him to pass more, then run more, then run more with Denard.  They want everything that hasn't been tried because surely that's what will work and nothing Borges has done works.

With defenses pressing up there isn't much Borges can do.  I agree with Brian's analysis from earlier almost exactly.  His playcalling against Illinois was good, the execution after the first quarter wasn't always though.  Would I like a bubble screen?  Yeah, but some coaches don't like that play for whatever reason (I still have never heard a reason, but I've heard multiple coaches say they don't like it, so there much be some thought process there).  Borges seems to be in the no bubble camp club, unless he's saving it for some reason (*Kevin Bacon with his fingers cross*).

Either way Borges is faced with some serious limitations with either QB and he's doing the most with what he has.  He isn't RR, he does what he does.  He has modified his schemes to fit his players the best he knows how.  And it's not even a quarter as bad as everyone complaining wants it to be.  His schemes are sound and good, his play calling isn't flawless (don't like the option on forth down either) but for the most part it is sound as well.  Some things the team is clearly working on.  The execution of some of these plays just really needs to get better.  It's not all playcalling (especially on the pitch play late in the game, which my girlfriend could tell you made me a little upset).

People bitching and complaining are doing so with the added benefit of hindsight and most of the time don't know what the hell they're talking about.  Heiko or Ace or whoever transcribes the pressers should be happy I'm not the OC because I'd probably snap a lot worse than Borges has (I'm not taking anything away from what they do, I'm glad they ask the questions they do and sometimes even get great answers, and they do a great job, but if I got the feedback some of you try to give Borges I would sure as hell get pissed).

So that's my rant plus what I think of the playcalling.  Agree with it or not, whatever, that's up to you.  I feel like I've proved my football knowledge at least enough for you to listen to my theory.  And sorry for getting a little upset and maybe going overboard on the board, but after this last game ridiculous a lot of people around here were acting.

Also, if there are mods who would like to add to this with either picture pages or the plays at hand (they shouldn't be too hard to find) I would appreciate it. 

Space Coyote

November 14th, 2011 at 6:14 PM ^

I don't know everything about football.  In fact, there are a good number of people on this board that probably know more than I do.  And every single coach at Michigan knows more than I do.  A lot more.  A most players probably know a lot more than I do.  

What I'm getting at is that it's ok to not know everything about football.  I'm not angry at people that ask questions, or that are even critical of some things.  It's ok to question things, you should question things.  What I'm angry about is that one person asks a question about why Borges called a play or why we aren't scoring touchdowns everytime and six people respond "because Borges is holding us back," "because Borges sucks," etc.  And these people that are saying this are just sheep following the person that said it before when almost none of them know what they are really talking about.  

I used to watch a lot of the Food Network a lot, but I wouldn't get super critical of a chef that is on there.  I may say "I don't think that looks good," and that's my opinion, which is fine.  But I wouldn't say "this chef sucks!"  So I understand you've watched a lot of football.  I understand you have read Brian and his love for the spread, which is fine.  You can have a preference.  But before you go spouting off as to "Borges sucking" you should probably actually know something about it outside of what you think "looks good" and what "looks bad."


November 15th, 2011 at 6:02 PM ^

Can not thank you enough for this.  I've been banging this drum for a little while now, but it means about a thousand times more coming from someone who can say "and here's why..."

After the last three years its clear that irrational fan behavior CAN have an effect on the team, i hope and think your post can help a lot with that


November 16th, 2011 at 11:26 AM ^

Best comment I've ever seen on mgoblog.

I'm just going to comment on the bubble screen thing. I know that most coaches that are adverse to it have a few reasons:

1) Execution. It is a tough throw to make, because it has to be perfect if the WR is to catch it in any position to gain yards. Denard isn't the most accurate guy, so while a lot of us yell, "throw the bubble, they are GIVING those yards away," it isn't that easy. And if your QB throws a few bad bubbles, there will be calls for his head ("he can't make a 5 yard pitch and catch!").

2) Turnover potential. This isn't a huge concern from the shotgun, as the pass is generally going forward and thus not a fumble. But from under center, there is a real risk of missing a lateral and having the defense scoop and score.

3) Nature of calling it. You can't really call a bubble screen. For it to be effective, it should be checked into when the D is giving it to you. I don't know if they are comfortable with Denard making checks. 

3b) More audible concerns. Even if he is able to check into it, there will still be reservations about him checking out of the original call, which might be just as good, or better, against that defense. Or it might serve a purpose for later in the game.

Anecdote. I know that when Michigan had Navarre (probably Henne as well) and Edwards, they would often call a run play with a "key" check. The "key" was the depth of the corner from Edwards. If he was off, Navarre would just throw it. It wasn't a bubble screen, per se, just a key read and a way to pick up a quick 5. But it made a lot of sense because:

a) Navarre. Smart enough to know whent to do it. Accurate enough to get it there. Very strong arm that could get it out there fast enough to give Edwards time. Not really Denard.

b) Edwards. Athletic freak. He could actually do something with it, so it was probably worth checking out of the called play.  Not any of our recievers.

c) Protection. The rest of the team expected the called run, so they sold a hard run fake, blocking the edges hard and not allowing penetration, which is a killer for this type of throw.

Again, it wasn't exactly a bubble screen, but it served the same purpose.


November 14th, 2011 at 4:53 PM ^

to get through all of that (probably will later), but awesome work. I'd like to think that I know football pretty well, but I never played, so I don't have that really deep understanding that so many on this board do. This should help immensely!


November 14th, 2011 at 8:33 PM ^

Thank you very much.  I very much appreciate the passing info as with the spread and RR attack I've been trying to learn that for a couple years.  I hope at some point you'll expand on the the description of Denard's holes in his game (stature and "manipulating the pocket").  Also, amen to the rant.


November 15th, 2011 at 11:02 AM ^

Thanks for this info. I always enjoy applying this knowledge to NCAA Football 12.

I've always figured that Levels was based on this theory. Is that an accurate assessment? I will say that there was a play against Iowa where we did this and Denard locked in on the corner route. It was very noticeable because I saw the two crossing routes wide open, but they stopped running before the ball was thrown.


November 15th, 2011 at 12:41 PM ^

I was thinking the same thing, but for Madden.  It's amazing  how many reads I miss, and I'm sitting in my living room.  I figure it will be years before I'm anything but amateur in my understanding of these concepts (I can't devote the time to get there more quickly), but it's such an enjoyable hobby.  Crossing that with M fandom brings a remarkable amount of joy, for something that may seem trivial to others.

But I am curious about Space Cowboy's thoughts on the 2 QB / jet deal - it did seem quite random when deployed.  If it's a "make you devote practice time to defend it" thing, that seems counter intuitive.  We have to devote practice time to running it.


November 15th, 2011 at 1:03 PM ^

Actually, I think that the philosophy is to use our offense to prepare our defense. If you look at our offense each week, we look more like the team we are playing than anything else. Is it any a coincidence that our two worst games came when we played teams with a power running game and we tried running power plays? I don't think so. IIRC, we broke out the sprint draw against NW, inverted veer against Purdue, and triple option against Illinois. If that pattern keeps up, we will run a lot of midline reads and Denard will have a record day running against Nebraska. I haven't watched enough OSU to know what they run, but it seems like a lot of spread stuff, which lends itself to us as well.

If you believe that, deploying trick plays and/or formations would be designed to help players play assignment football instead of getting caught up in the misdirection. You do it in the off weeks because there isn't a whole lot you need to worry about from the opposing offense other than trick plays.


November 15th, 2011 at 1:26 PM ^

He installed an offense that would toughen up his defense, and he did so specifically for the bruising attack OSU deployed under Hayes.

That was more general, though.  I don't know if it follows this way, in terms of week-to-week preparation.  This is what the scout team is for.  Borges should be putting in a specific gameplan to attack weaknesses in that week's opponent. 

Mattison, for example, surely designed his plays to take advantage of a QB who locks onto receivers, and specifically to one receiver.


November 15th, 2011 at 2:56 PM ^

I don't think that is Borges' decision to make, but rather Hoke's. It's not like our entire offense changes drastically on a week-to-week basis. It's just a few simple concepts that our offense adds in to prepare the defense. It's not hard to add in triple option once you have the read option and the speed option added in. Inverted Veer isn't too different from a tradional read option. The passing route concepts stay the same. A lot of our blocking stays the same. I just think that we practice certain plays that our opponent will run so that the defense isn't shocked by it when they see it. You could argue that's what the practice team is for, but you also want your defense to face the best players so that they get the full effect of the opponent's offense in practice. This probably a large part of why the defense is so much better this year. Rather than playing each opponents' offense against 1st stringers for the first time in each game, they have seen it when they get to the field and know exactly what to expect.

Space Coyote

November 15th, 2011 at 9:38 PM ^

It is odd that it is happening that way, but I'm almost positive it is coincidence.  The offensive coaches are smart enough to go into a game with their own game play on how to exploit the other team and what they think will help the team the most.  I think wrinkles are added and different plays are subbed in for others, but that happens regardless.  With the limited amount of time players have to practice they can't learn brand new concepts to face opponents and master what they are trying to teach.  That is why they have a scout team, to learn the opposing teams plays the best they can so the first team doesn't have to and so the first team can focus on what will work best for them in the upcoming game.

Space Coyote

November 15th, 2011 at 9:43 PM ^

Levels is a very similar concept.  The short route runs off the defender.  If it is toward the middle of the field the goal is to suck up the LBs and make them void their zone.  If it's too the outside the goal is to suck up the CB in the flat to open up the man behind him.

To be clear, levels usually refers to having receivers run at different depths over the middle, essentially reading the LBs the same way the drag and follow did.  But it is very similar to flood plays.  You are basically high/lowing people and forcing one person to cover 2 guys.

I actually think in the version of the play Michigan ran they also had a levels concept.  The up man in the play Michigan ran isn't the follow route, but rather what I depicted as the corner route.  Rather than a corner route though, the TE runs essentially a 12 yard hitch.  I have a feeling however that this is much like the levels concept, where the deeper of the two routes hitches in the void of the zone.

For those wondering what the heck we're talking about, here's a link


November 16th, 2011 at 3:25 AM ^

What I like about this play is that it plays to the offensive strengths.  We have an offensive line (& denard rush threat) that allows for longer-developing plays.  I think the first instinct of a coordinator is that this is the ideal setup for the 'kill shot', the long pass - but we've seen that throwing over the top isn't Denard's forte.  

So it seems to me that what Borges is doing here is using long developing yet short distance plays, which only work because of this unique talent set.  Good protection + linebacker fear of Denard + Denard's powerful short/mid range arm.  I'm sold.


November 16th, 2011 at 10:28 AM ^

I will be lookng for the zip motion to trips now, and it will be fun to pick out the drag and follow. As much as I think I know what's going on, it's good to take a step back and realize I don't really know a damn thing. One thing's for certain: Al Borges is the man. He is a drastically different OC than we have had in my lifetime, and I really like how creative he is.  Don't get me wrong, I love me some smashmouth football. However, Borges has bits and pieces of several different offensive styles in his gameplans. I would hate to have to come up with a D scheme to stop it. GO BLUE!!!

P.S. - you should do one of these a week with a different offensive/defensive concept. I really appreciate your ability to make this stuff easy to understand and digest, and I look forward to more in the future!


November 16th, 2011 at 11:27 AM ^

I have to disagree with the Borges defenders.  All I have to say about the Illinois game is it is about time.  I do not buy the excuses that he can only do what he knows.  Even stone age Tressel figured the spread out when he had a QB capable of running it.  I do not know if good play calling would have pulled out the MSU game,  But the Iowa game loss is completely on Borges.  Unless you are better then the other team, succesful football is dependent on deception.  Mattison is doing a wonderful job on the defensive side of the ball getting the most out of his players.  I will not buy for a second that Borges becomes an incapable deunce if the QB is in the shotgun.  I think it is more hubris that he thinks his way is better. 

I think the Illinois game proves that the shot gun and showing three threats is far superior to anything Borges would profess.  Which bothers me more.  Any good coordinator should be able to adjust to what he has.  Mattison did.  But that is why Mattison is considered a genius and why Borges was stuck in the moutain west.  I would have expected that if he were so good, someone would have offered a better gig then SDSU.


Space Coyote

November 16th, 2011 at 11:58 AM ^

Denard, in every single game, has spent the majority of the time in shotgun.  I'm pretty sure Borges is playing more shotgun than he has at any point in his career.  He is adopting his offense to fit spread schemes, he's done it every game, but he's also trying to incorporate his schemes.  Even Tressel did that when his team "went spread".  They still lined up under center at times.  So your first point isn't valid.  The teams execution is the problem, not the play calling.  Just because it's a different way of doing things doesn't mean it's a wrong way of doing things.

Also, Borges was an OC at Boise State, Oregon, UCLA, Cal, and National Champion Auburn before coaching at SDSU.  So that point isn't really valid.  I'm not saying Borges is the best thing sense sliced bread and I don't agree with everything he's done, but he knows what he's doing.  And football coaching gigs aren't just linear trends.  You would like to believe Calvin Magee would end up at a better place than Pitt, and that Rod Smith would end up at a better place than Indiana.  You would think RR wouldn't be forced to want an interview at Tulane and that Leach would at least have someone look at him for his offense.  Your point just isn't valid.